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Bush eyes Peru's Garcia as Latin American ally

Yahoo News, Tue October 10, 2006

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Peruvian President Alan Garcia on Tuesday asked

President Bush to push for congressional approval of a bilateral free trade pact to thwart an emerging threat of "Andean fundamentalism."

The United States has focused its

attention elsewhere in recent years, Garcia said, and neglected Latin America where leftist presidents in Venezuela and Bolivia have taken power to challenge Washington.

In the Andean region, many voters have turned to support more radical candidates urging a battle against years of U.S.-encouraged market reforms.

"There is a new fundamentalism growing in South America -- Andean fundamentalism," Garcia told reporters.

Bush, during Garcia's first visit to Washington since he took power in July, pledged to work with Congress to get the trade deal passed as soon as possible.

Officials did not say whether the pact -- on which Peru has pinned hopes for boosting its export-driven economy and slashing rampant poverty -- would be voted on this year. Peru's legislature has already approved it.

"He comes to the Oval Office as a friend, somebody (with whom) I can have good working relations," Bush told reporters at the White House.

With many in Washington eyeing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a threat to democracy in Latin America, and with leftist President Evo Morales elected in Bolivia, Garcia's election victory this year came as a relief to the United States.

COUNTERWEIGHT

Political analysts in Lima say Garcia could be a counterweight to Chavez, partly because Peru has natural resources that reduce the appeal of oil-backed investment Chavez is offering other countries.

"We see our role as a country in terms of promoting democracy and achieving friendship without threats in our region," Garcia said.

Garcia had been a U.S. foe during his first term as president, pushing Peru toward economic ruin from 1985-90. Now he is betting that closer ties will boost investment in mining -- the Andean nation's key industry -- and eventually help sell natural gas to the United States.

Garcia also needs U.S. help in controlling spiraling cocaine production in Peru, the world's No. 2 cocaine producer.

Production of coca, the raw material for the drug, jumped almost 40 percent last year as an eradication program in Colombia pushed up prices in Peru. Garcia proposed a high-level meeting to relaunch the war against drugs.

But a free trade deal is Garcia's most urgent concern because another deal with the United States, the Andean Trade Preference and Drug Eradication Act, runs out at the end of this year.

U.S. Commerce Secretary

Carlos Gutierrez, leaving a meeting with Garcia and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, said no date was set for a congressional vote.

Many Democrats are angry the Bush administration did not include stronger labor provisions in the pact, and some textile-state Republicans fear domestic producers could be hurt by the agreement.

(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan)